Can We Hold Israel Accountable?

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To read Breaking the Silence testimonies by Israeli soldiers on the ongoing occupation and blockade of Palestine, check out “It’s Mostly Punishment,” by Oded Na’aman.

A version
of this article
appeared at

The great wish of the early Zionist leader
Theodor Herzl was that Israel
would be treated like “any other state.” Were that the case, there might be
more rational and productive discourse regarding the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, which is particularly critical in light of Israel launching yet
another devastating attack against civilian-populated areas of nearby Arab

There are certainly those who do unfairly
single out Israel,
the world’s only predominantly Jewish state, for criticism. There is a tendency
by some to minimize Israel’s
legitimate security concerns and place inordinate attention on the Israeli
government’s transgressions, relative to other governments that abuse human
rights. There are also those who, in light of the five-year siege of the Gaza
Strip and the enormous suffering of the Palestinian
people, try to rationalize terrorism and other crimes by Hamas, the reactionary
Islamist group currently in control there.

What we recently witnessed from the Obama
administration, however–as Hamas rainedrockets
into Israel and Israel rained bombs, missiles, and mortars into
the crowded and besieged Gaza Strip–was the similarly unfair phenomenon of
exempting Israel
from criticism. While most of the international community has criticized both Hamas and Israel for
their attacks on areas populated by civilians, the Obama administration has
restricted its condemnation to the Palestinian side.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice–widely
considered to be the president’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as
Secretary of State–correctly noted that there is “no justification for the
violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the
people of Israel.”
However, she had absolutely no criticism of Israel’s
far more devastating attacks against the people of the Gaza Strip, simply
saying that “Israel,
like any nation, has the right to defend itself against such vicious attacks.”

The real issue, however, is not Israel’s
right to self-defense but its attacks on crowded residential neighborhoods,
which killed 103 Palestinian civilians (as compared with four Israeli civilians
killed by Hamas rockets). The Obama administration’s position is ironic given
that, while both sides share the blame for the tragedy, it appears that it is Israel which
has been primarily responsible for breaking the recent fragile ceasefires,
through acts such as its assassination of a leading Hamas official and attacks
that killed a number of boys playing soccer.

In the face of growing calls from throughout
the world for both sides to de-escalate the violence, the White House said on November
17 that it would leave
it to Israel
to decide whether it is appropriate to launch a ground
invasion. Similarly, in response to the outcry at the growing number of
civilian casualties from the Israeli bombardment of civilian areas of the Gaza
Strip, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes insisted, “The
Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and

On November 15, both the U.S. Senate
and House
passed, by unanimous voice votes, resolutions defending Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza
Strip. Unlike some of the statements from the Obama administration supporting
the Israel’s
attacks, these resolutions failed to call on both sides to exercise restraint
or to express any regret at the resulting casualties.

History repeats

This position is not a new one among U.S. elected
officials. Back in February 2009, following the devastating three-week war
between Israeli and Hamas forces–named “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israelis–in
which three Israeli civilians and more than 800 Palestinian civilians were
killed, Amnesty International called for an international arms embargo on both
Israel and Hamas to prevent the kind of tragic attacks on civilians in which
both sides are currently engaging. President Barack Obama, who had just taken
office, categorically rejected Amnesty’s proposal, and instead increased U.S. military aid to Israel to record

Israel was no doubt emboldened in launching its 2012offensive as a result of the strong
support it received from the United
States in 2009. For example, the U.S. House
of Representatives–in a direct challenge to the credibility of Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and other reputable
humanitarian organizations–passed a resolution
in January of 2009 declaring that the Israeli armed forces bore no
responsibility for the large numbers of civilian casualties from their assault
on the Gaza Strip.

The resolution put forward a disturbing
interpretation of international humanitarian law: that, by allegedly breaking
the cease-fire, Hamas was responsible for all subsequent deaths, and that the
presence of Hamas officials or militia members in mosques, hospitals, or
residential areas made those locations legitimate targets.

Human rights reports comdemned

Unusual interpretations of international
law have long played a role in the special treatment Israel
receives from the United
States. In the fall of 2009, when a
blue-ribbon panel of prominent international jurists–veterans of human rights
investigations in Sudan, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia–led a meticulously
detailed U.N.-sponsored investigation that confirmed previous human rights
reports by documenting possible war crimes on both sides, Congress passed
another lopsided bipartisan
condemning the investigation for failing to absolve Israel of
any responsibility. The Obama administration succeeded in blocking the United
Nations from acting on the report’s recommendations that both sides be
investigated for possible war crimes.

The human rights investigations from 2009
and earlier examined Israeli claims that Hamas’ alleged use of “human shields”
was responsible for the large number of civilian casualties. While these probes
criticized Hamas for at times having men and materiel too close to
civilian-populated areas, they were unable to find even one incident of Hamas
deliberately holding civilians against their will in an effort to deter Israeli

The Obama administration and Congressional
leaders, however, insisted that they knew more about what happened inside the
Gaza Strip than these on-the-ground investigations by expert human rights
monitors and respected international jurists. As a renewed round of attacks is
unleashed upon this small and heavily populated Palestinian enclave, they are
now making similar claims to justify the ongoing Israeli attacks on civilian
population centers.

As Amnesty and other human rights groups
have observed, however, even if Hamas were using human shields, it would still
not justify Israel
killing Palestinian civilians.

The United
States has not been hesitant to criticize Russia in its attacks on Chechnya and Georgia,
or Syria
in its more recent attacks against its own people. Yet both Congress and the
administration seem willing to bend over backwards to rationalize for Israel when it
attacks civilians.

The administration’s criticism of Hamas
rocket attacks would also have more credibility if they didn’t also oppose
nonviolent means of challenging the siege of Gaza and the occupation and
colonization of West Bank lands, such as boycotts and divestment against
companies supporting the occupation, UN recognition of Palestinian statehood,
humanitarian aid flotillas to Gaza, and targeted sanctions against Israeli
violations of international humanitarian law

Fair application of universal principles

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
certainly has unique aspects, it is critical for those supportive of peace and
human rights to underscore universal principles,
such as those enshrined in international humanitarian law.

The fact that Israel
is perceived as an important strategic ally of the United States does not mean we
should ignore its violations of well-established legal norms any more than
those committed by a perceived adversary like Hamas. Those of us in the peace
movement should challenge elected officials who currently support unconditional
U.S. military aid to the
Israeli government and rationalize its attacks on civilians just as vigorously
as we did those who in earlier years supported unconditional U.S. military aid to El
Salvador, Indonesia,
and other repressive Cold War allies of the United States.

And while it is important to recognize the
special sensitivity some people have regarding the subject of Israel, this
should not deter those who care about human rights from speaking out. Indeed,
even putting aside the important moral and legal critiques of Israel’s recent offensive against the Gaza
Strip and the ongoing siege of the crowded enclave, such policies ultimately
harm Israel
by encouraging extremism among Palestinians struggling for the right of
national self-determination.

It is also important to recognize that,
while both sides have committed great wrongs against the other’s people, there
exists a gross asymmetry in power. Israel–the occupying power, which possesses
by far the strongest military in the region, one of the world’s higher
standards of living, and the backing of the world’s one remaining
superpower–has a huge advantage over the impoverished Gaza Strip, with its weak
and isolated Hamas government struggling under a five-year air, land, and sea
blockade, and without an air force, navy, or standing army.

Fortunately, thousands of Israelis have
taken to the streets in protest of their government’s attacks on the Gaza
Strip. Israeli peace and human rights activists have called on the Obama
administration to end its support for Netanyahu’s militarism. As citizens of
the country that has provided Israel with the military, financial, and
diplomatic support that has made the renewed killing possible, those of us in
the United States have a special obligation to challenge the administration and
Congress to end its unconscionable support for the ongoing destruction.

As we would such policies toward any other

Zunes wrote this article for
YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas
with practical actions. Stephen is a professor of Politics and International
Studies at the University of San Francisco and chairs the academic advisory
committee of the International
Center on Nonviolent

by Jewish
Voice for Peace
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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